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James Marshall shares how Southampton City Council have achieved true AI channel shift

Updated: Sep 23, 2022

Southampton City Council have long been leaders in their digital transformation journey

They were early movers in realising the long term benefits of using AI to automate citizen engagement. They are now entering a new phase of channel shift and exploring new ways to actively direct their residents away from phone and email towards their growing AI Assistant.

James Marshall, Head of Customer and Communications at Southampton City Council, shared the details in how they've become a truly digital council in an exclusive QnA.

James Marshall, Head of Customer and Communications at Southampton City Council

James, how about taking us back to those initial meetings when we first met with you? Can you just talk to us a little bit about the journey you've had with ICS?

We've been working together for a number of years now, before chatbots were trendy to be honest with you and we started exploring the options to automate some customer contacts and look at different ways of delivering options to our customers and our answers in a digital way but that are also conversational.

Some of our research with customers showed that people appreciated the kind of conversational nature of some interactions rather than just facts. So when we started exploring how we put that into action, and we used the ICS.AI product and worked with the team to develop a bot that we're really proud of. We were able to launch it just over 18 months ago, just at the start of the pandemic. When the lockdown was kicking in, we were at the point of being ready to go live, so we went live and it's grown and blossomed from there.

Have you got anything you can share in terms of why you chose us at the time?

Microsoft introduced us because we do a lot of work with Microsoft and you were one of their chosen partners. We wanted to build on a trusted technology stack as you guys would call it. We liked your innovative and creative approach and how you were quite flexible about how you deliver something and take a product and build on that and work to our specification and that kind of relationship and collaboration blossomed from there really.

We liked your innovative and creative approach and how you were quite flexible about how you deliver something and take a product and build on that and work to our spec

Month by month out of hours contact for SOBOT

You mentioned that you went live just as the pandemic was starting. Can you tell us a little bit about that, that experience from your perspective?

I think if the pandemic wasn't happening that's about when we were going live anyway. We've been working on it with you guys for a while, but actually, in some ways the pandemic accelerated our need to go live because the challenges around telephony, and other stuff with people being in the office and so it was actually a really good time to go live because digital take up was growing quickly. It gave us another kind of feather in our digital cap if you pardon the expression, to serve customers at a time when customer services were in the biggest demand we've seen for a long time.

In terms of the benefits that you've seen from Sobot, your digital assistant, which is proudly on your homepage, what would highlight as the benefits that you've seen in the time that we've been working together?

SOBOT, Southampton's AI Assistant

When we introduced live chat a few years before with a human, initially, it had a big peak of use, and then it sort of fizzled out down to a much lower level, we didn't see that with Sobot, there wasn't that kind of like novelty factor or people not using it again, we found that it sustained at a high level of usage each month.

We're well over 30,000 interactions since go live

Because of this we'll be avoiding some phone calls and visits and providing 24/7 information on topics in a conversational and straightforward way, in bite sized chunks that enables people to understand complex issues and get the guidance and kind of direction that they need around a wide range of council issues.

We'll be avoiding some phone calls and visits and providing 24/7 information on topics in a conversational and straightforward way

We've been able to develop a capability across all of your service areas, would you say that's fair to say?

We've grown it since go live, we went live with five core areas which were driven by our customer data and so we knew that we picked up the biggest volume transactional areas, and then since then we've gone live with others, and we're still working with you on additional ones to add in as well.

Is there anything you feel we should have done sooner rather than later?

We've got other stuff we need to work on that was separate from the bot in terms of we've upgraded our telephony platform and other things. Now we're looking at integrating with the bot in terms of our web chat we're in a better place to do that now but I think it might have been too much to take it all on at once. It's good to get the Sobot brand established and people reliably using it. So I think the last 18 months has been about spot on. We're excited about the opportunities the next 18 months bring.

I'm interested in what your agents in your contact centre I think of SOBOT?

They were all heavily involved in testing it before we went live. They also use it now to help with questions that might be outside their skill area, where they get customers come through and ask for something, I often see it used on the floor because it's a really useful source of information for them to ask questions, so type out verbatim what the customer is asking and see what the what the bot comes back with topics that might fall outside their training area. It's really helpful from that perspective.

I think some of them initially saw it as a bit of a threat but actually the more they've embraced it, they really realise it's a benefit. And it's another digital agent to help out on the bench along from them, it's another member of the team.

There's not a load of outstanding contacts waiting on their desk for 8:30 the next morning because it's been dealt with. That's a real benefit.

You were very keen to ensure that you had a conversational experience with the platform. Why was that important to you and what were the results of doing that?

I think we believe in doing stuff that's focussed on the customer that adds value and if you're going to do something its worth doing it properly. There are hybrid solutions or search based bot solutions, there are plenty of terrible bots out there and I've seen lots of terrible bots on council websites and I didn't want to be in that kind of in that category. We wanted to make sure it was something that was truly good, that people had a good experience with, that they can engage with in a way that they might engage with something like Alexa or Siri that they're used to and then come back and use it again and again and again and know it's reliable. So that was really critical for me.

What are the general views of the Southampton?

So initially from some members of staff and customers it's met with a bit of scepticism, but actually, that's been dispelled for most users, we're always in the high 90s in terms of success rate for users and that's testament to the work we did to get to kind of invest in getting it right. People are pleasantly surprised and find it really valuable, useful and that's backed up with a numbers.

What is your wider vision for digital channel shift?

Our vision is not just about digital channel shift its about customer experience at the core. It's about making sure things work well for customers however they choose to access our services. Obviously, there are cost benefits for them choosing digital, but we want them to choose digital because they're good experiences, they're so good, they wouldn't want to go back to analogue, but equally, we want to make our face to face and telephone experiences as good as possible for customers.

That's kind of our wider ethos and we've done work to upgrade technology and put improvements in place across the board around all of our different channels. So we've made significant changes to our websites, cut out all of our IVRS and simplified those for our telephony, and a range of other things as well.

You've come up with a campaign focussed approach can you share this?

We're really happy with what the bots doing and how it's helping customers, but there's always a barrier that some customers will never click on that banner on the side and launch a chat because that just isn't in there kind of thinking. The bot has got lots of intelligence in it that would help with different problems so what we wanted to do is a more campaign approach where the bot forms part of what we do on an outbound basis.

So we push people back to the bot to get answers, it's around finding new ways of packaging that information that's in the bot and that intelligence and using it to solve customer problems.

We're looking at solving problems around council tax and around waste and recycling and using the bot to deliver an excellent user experience but also give wider benefits to the council as well.

When we talked about this initially, you were a little sceptical about whether or not putting a bot on your website would have a huge impact on the number of inbound calls. What did that stem from? And what have you seen with that?

I think there's a lot of channel shift nonsense pushed around, around the fact that you do one simple thing and you'll be able to cut your contact centre in half and I've never subscribed to that. We've always come at it from a position of choice because often, the way you achieve channel shift is by really making some of the channels you're trying to move people away from really hard to access. I see often customers find a way through in a different route or it ends up costing you more in complaint management.

The bot wasn't ever added with huge channel shift aspirations but it's obviously a benefit that we were keen to see as well as about giving customers choice and enriching that digital experience. In terms of our journey, there is certainly many things that are very hard to measure, like for like, but we've seen an uptake in all of our digital stuff since the being in introduction of the bot, and that is certainly supporting us growing our digital usage by percentage, and we're seeing that grow month on month.

What other channels are you thinking about going forward?

I think we're talking about integrating and front ending all of our live chat with bots so that you go to the bot initially and then if you haven't had your issue resolved, or it's more complex, or meets a certain set of criteria the bot passes it through to an agent, to reduce the pressure and try and target the use of human wide web chat. Now we've got the new IVR and telephone system that's another area we'll be keen to explore in the future as well.

What might you have done different next time?

Not a lot, if I'm honest. I think we've done a good job all together. I think there were a a couple of areas that we would have trained it in sooner rather than later. But on the whole I think it's been a it's been a real successful project, and one we can continue to build on and grow on as we go along. This next phase of the campaign stuff I'm particularly excited about, I'm looking forward to seeing how that works when it gets out live. There's quite a lot of people who are quite excited about the campaign stuff and how we can use the bot in a different way.


Find out more about Southampton's use of AI Assistant by watching our webinar. Presented by ICS.AI's own CEO, Martin Neale, and Chief Customer Officer Andrew Smith plus featuring James Marshall, as a guest speaker.

Find out more about our AI assistants by visiting our Smart Chat page. Or simply contact us from our Contact page.

Note: This interview have been extracted and transcribed from a live webinar event.

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